Politics, culture, business, and technology

I also blog at ChicagoBoyz.


Selected Posts:
Sleeping with the Enemy
Dancing for the Boa Constrictor
Koestler on Nuance
A Look into the Abyss
Hospital Automation
Made in America
Politicians Behaving Badly
Critics and Doers
Foundations of Bigotry?
Bonhoeffer and Iraq
Misvaluing Manufacturing
Journalism's Nuremberg?
No Steak for You!
An Academic Bubble?
Repent Now
Enemies of Civilization
Molly & the Media
Misquantifying Terrorism
Education or Indoctrination?
Dark Satanic Mills
Political Violence Superheated 'steem
PC and Pearl Harbor
Veterans' Day Musings
Arming Airline Pilots
Pups for Peace
Baghdad on the Rhine

Book Reviews:
Forging a Rebel
The Logic of Failure
The Innovator's Solution
They Made America
On the Rails: A Woman's Journey

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betsy's page
one hand clapping
a schoolyard blog
joy of knitting
lead and gold
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no credentials
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Monday, January 30, 2006  

On your next trip to the grocery store, you might consider purchasing some products from Denmark.

That country is currently the target of a boycott in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Many Muslims were offended by cartoons published by Denmark's leading newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, and there have been repeated demands that the Danish government ban such publications. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has pointed out that he has no authority over Danish newspapers and has attempted to explain the concept of a free press, but to little avail. The boycott is apparently really hurting Danish business (see report from Arla Foods here), and there have also been incidents of violence directed against Danes.

Denmark has shown far more courage against this intimidation than has been shown by other European countries in similar circumstances; even in Denmark, though, cracks are appearing in the wall of resistance. Arla Foods, which as noted above has been seriously impacted by the boycott, made this statement. Although I understand that Arla is in a tough spot, it would have been nice if they had put more emphasis on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in their statement. And the newspaper Jyllands-Posten itself has issued something resembling an apology; if you read it closely, it appears that they are saying "sorry you were offended" rather than "sorry we published these cartoons."

The key issue isn't whether the cartoons were nice or whether Jyllands-Posten used good editorial judgment in publishing them...the issue is whether they had the right to publish them, without fear of intimidation by legal process or by street violence. On that issue, there can be no compromise, and it appears that the Prime Minister of Denmark understands that point very well. Unfortunately, Bill Clinton evidently does not--see this appalling statement. (Is Clinton in a race against Jimmy Carter for this title of "worst living U.S. ex-President?")

It's important for Americans--and others who care about freedom of the press--to show their support for Denmark by purchasing Danish products. Here is a web page which offers some ideas for shopping.

The throwing of tea into a harbor marked the beginning of American freedom...the purchasing of cheese and other delicious Danish foods will help to maintain and expand it.

UPDATE: Much more at Michelle Malkin.

UPDATE 2: Exit Zero reflects on the growing threat to free speech.

4:48 PM

Sunday, January 29, 2006  

By 2008, the consumption of silicon for the fabrication of solar panels will exceed the consumption of silicon for semiconductors (integrated circuits and other electronic devices.) This from Business Week (2/6, subscription required.) Already in 2005, about 18 million metric tons of silicon were consumed for solar, as against 20 million tons for semiconductors--and the growth rate for solar panels is a lot higher.

This demand growth has led to a shortage of the ultrapure processed silicon used for both solar and for electronics. Although the ultimate raw material is very common (sand), it takes a lot of processing to be usable. Suppliers have been reluctant to expand capacity because they have been burned in the past by the highly-cyclic semiconductor industry, but additional capacity is now coming on line. Hemlock Semiconductor, for example, is putting $400 million ino an expansion project that will expand its capacity by 40%. Panel manufacturers are making panels that are thinner, to use less silicon, and non-silicon technologies are also being pursued.

Much of the solar demand is clearly being driven by subsidies...California has allocated $2.9B (over 10 years), and there are subsidy programs in several European countries. Germany has one of the richest...anyone with solar panels is guaranteed 55 cents per kilowatt hour for the resulting electicity. This sounds unsustainably high to me.

I think that much of the future of solar over the near term will be driven by less-developed countries where the grid is not yet built out and solar power can provide a locally-generated alternative. Also, the success of solar power will clearly by influenced very strongly by the development of improved technologies for the storage of electricity.

8:42 AM

Saturday, January 28, 2006  

Dr Sanity was Crew Surgeon for the Challenger mission, and knew all of the crew members and their families. Read her story of the events as she saw them. Be sure to follow the link to the post about her meeting with President Reagan.

5:54 PM


Thoughts and images at All Things Beautiful. See also her related post The Lesser of Two Evils.

Pamela has a partial list of atrocities committed by Hamas, with a link to a more complete list. She also links to this article by Daniel Pipes, who has little time for the theory that "the imperatives of governance" will cause Hamas to grow up and become a responsible organization:

The historical record, however, refutes this "pothole theory of democracy." Mussolini made the trains run, Hitler built autobahns, Stalin cleared the snow and Castro reduced infant mortality without any of these totalitarians giving up their ideological zeal nor their grandiose ambitions. Likewise, Islamists in Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan have governed without becoming tamed. If proof is needed, note the Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons amid an apocalyptic fervor.

Before the election happened, Jimmy Carter expressed "optimism" about the participation of Hamas:

Carter told CNN in an interview that although Hamas were "so-called terrorists," so far "there have been no complaints of corruption against [their] elected officials." He conceded that "there is an element within Hamas who deny Israel's right to exist," but compared the current situation to negotiations with the PLO, which was still outlawed as a terrorist organization during his presidency.

...sounds like Carter is actually proud of his role in legitimizing the terrorist leadership of Palestine. I think Carter's willingness to accept Arafat as if he were a normal national leader had a lot to do with creating the dangerous situation in which the world now finds itself.

And, from the UK, Guardian writer Jonathan Steele says "Hamas's triumph in Wednesday's Palestinian elections is the best news from the Middle East for a long time," and continues with the following astounding example of moral equivalency:

Above all, Europe should not get hung up on the wrong issues, like armed resistance and the "war on terror". Murdering a Palestinian politician by a long-range attack that is bound also to kill innocent civilians is morally and legally no better than a suicide bomb on a bus.

The Washington Post, on the other hand, shows some rare common sense in its editorial about the elections.

And President Bush is, so far, taking a hard line on Hamas:

President Bush yesterday said the U.S. will not deal with Hamas, the terrorist group that won Wednesday's Palestinian elections, unless it renounces its goal of destroying Israel.

"A political party that articulates the destruction of Israel as part of its platform is a party with which we will not deal," the president said in a press conference. "People must renounce that part of their platform."

2:26 PM

Thursday, January 26, 2006  

An official booklet handed out to attendees at the World Economic Conference in Davos contains a vitriolic anti-Israel article. Ynet News summarizes:

"The article includes an unequivocal call to establish a global movement against Zionism and a global movement against the "Israeli apartheid", as well as anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic remarks and threats, the likes of which are usually published in marginal magazines in the West or by radical Islamists."

The Ynet post included a link to the article itself, which was active yesterday but has now been removed.

Professor Klaus Schwab, Chairman and Executive Director of the World Economic Forum, has apologized for the article. Mark Adams, head of press at Davos, explained that the magazine had arrived just a day before the publication deadline and neither he nor Schwab had had the time to browse through it, let alone read the articles in depth.

Not a very good excuse. Leaders are responsible for the actions of their subordinates, since they choose those subordinates, and make decisions about their retention. And if there are any doubts about a subordinate's judgment, one should insure that one has adequate time to review his work before it is inflicted on the world. Sounds to me like there is something seriously wrong with the culture of the World Economic Forum, and with the leadership skill and/or the values of those who run it.

I note that the Davos booklet accepts advertising. I hope that any advertisers who had the misfortune to be in this issue will demand a return of their money.

6:18 AM

Saturday, January 21, 2006  

I've written several times previously about the excesses of the self-esteem movement as practiced in many of America's schools: like banning red ink for correcting student papers because the use of that color is thought to create undue stress in students. Some college professors have commented that when students raised this way reach college, they often can't handle even the most minor critism without becoming emotionally distraught. (See linked post for examples.)

And now, according to an article in Fast Company, this trend has hit the workplace. Here's one example:

A 22-year-old pharmaceutical employee learned that he was not getting the promotion he had been eyeing. His boss told him he needed to work on his weaknesses first. The Harvard grad has excelled at everything he had ever done, so he was crushed by the news. He told his parents about the performance review, and they were convinced there was some misunderstanding, and some way they could fix it, as they'd been able to fix everything before. His mother called the human-resources department the next day. Seventeen times. She left increasingly frustrated messages...She demanded a mediation session with her, her son, his boss, and HR--and got it. At one point, the 22-year-old reprimanded the HR rep for being "rude to my mom."

Another example:

Cindy Pruitt, a professional development and recruiting manager with the national law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, shares with disbelief a recent incident in which one of the firm's summer associates broke down in her office after being told his structure on a recent memo was "a little too loose." "They're simply stunned when they get any kind of negative feedback," Pruitt says. "I practically had to walk him off the ledge."

Clearly, somebody needs to explain to these kids (and their parents) that this kind of oversensitive attitude is not going to be conducive to their career successs. And somebody needs to show the K-12 schools the kind of behavior that is now emerging as a result of the irresponsible practices carried out by those schools. But, I'm afraid, many of the kids and parents, and most of the school administrators, are beyond the stage at which such information or advice would do any good.

The practical question for those who run organizations and hire people is this: What can you do to keep this kind of thing from destroying the effectiveness of your organization? Because it certainly can. If 5-10% of your people have a prickly sense of entitlement, then the overall organizational culture can still do well, and some of those who start out with attitude problems will straighten up. But if you reach the state in which 50% of your employees are like this, then the problem will feed upon itself, and things will get worse rather than better.

I do think the Fast Company article paints with too broad a brush. An entire generation does not really all share the same characteristics; there are certainly many "millenials" (those now in their early 20s) who have very different attitudes from those portrayed in the article. (And the article does mention some criticisms that "millenials" have of their employers that seem justified.) But a mindless focus on "self-esteem" has been a hallmark of American K-12 education for well over a decade now, and it does seem likely that this is having a malign effect on the attitudes of those now emerging from the educational process.

The article suggests several ideas on how to make the workplace more accomodating to millenials. Fair enough. But it's also important to minimize the number of people hired with the wrong attitudes, and maximize the number hired with the right attitudes. This has always been important--but in an era in which bad attitudes are being systematically mass-produced with government money, it's more important than ever.

So, if you're interviewing a prospective new employee, you might want to ask a few questions about how the individual has handled criticism or failure in the past. And you might also want to consider some nontraditional sources of employees. Consider, for example, military veterans--especially veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. These people are likely to have had experiences which helped them develop attitudes and meta-skills which will be of great value in your organization, whatever kind of work that organization does. And they are less likely to have an overwhelming sense of entitlement than those who have done nothing but go through 16 or 20 years of school.

8:49 PM


As time permits, I'll be putting together a selection of what I think are some of my most worthwhile posts from the last year...I'll do it by category and then create an overall summary. The first category is education.

Thinking and Memorizing. "Progressive" educators often argue that memorization is unnecessary if "thinking skills" are developed. A popular song sheds some light on this issue.

State of the Schools, Math Division. When schools discourage things like learning to multiply as "rote learning," what happens to the students when they try to learn something more advanced--like algebra? A college math instructor has some experience-based opinions.

Skipping Science Class. Why is the UK deemphasizing real science teaching in favor of "learning about the way science and scientists work within society?" (Posted at Chicago Boyz)

Penny in the Fusebox. What are the consequences when teachers lose the authority to deal effectively with disruptive students?

Return on College Investment. For the last 20 years, a college degree has been the rarest of anomalies--a low-risk, high-return asset. Will this situation continue? Summarizes some thoughts from BusinessWeek chief economist Michael Mandel.

8:44 PM


Here's something I read several years ago, and remembered this week. Michael Malone reflects on an experience recorded by Loren Eiseley:

Eiseley finds himself on a beach, sitting under a beached boat. There, his thoughts cast back 30 years to the death of his father, a once powerful, vital man reduced at the end to little more than a shadow. Eiseley is paralyzed with his sorrow. Just then, he discovers he is not alone. He sees the tiny, excited face of a fox pup--"alone in a dread universe" but not afraid.

"He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face...the wide-eyed innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing."

Deciding it is "not a time for human dignity," Eiseley arranges his own forepaws together, then leans forward, picks up a bone in his teeth and shakes it. The "puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement." Soon they are rolling around together, laughing and barking.

It is that gesture by the fox, the two cinnabar paws poised together in expectation, that redeems and saves Eiseley's life. The middle-aged scientist knows he can now go on. He can accept his father's death and ultimately his own. Life has once again closed the circle. The Innocent Fox, at the start of its own brief arc, is ready to play.

8:33 AM

Wednesday, January 18, 2006  

My father died Monday. He was a wonderful man, and he led an extraordinary life. He was fair to everybody, and interested in just about everything. He was an independent thinker and a warm and well-loved person who never lost his sense of humor. His integrity, in particular his intellectual integrity, was total. It would take many, many pages to even begin to touch on all that I have learned from him.

8:44 PM

Thursday, January 12, 2006  

The government of Iran has sentenced another teenage girl to hang.

Her crime was to attempt to defend herself from an attempted rape.

Hanging teenage girls seems to be a fairly popular thing in Iran under this regime...read the link above.

This is a government that is alarmingly close to obtaining nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles with a range that would threaten Europe as well as Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. I really, really don't understand why more people aren't alarmed about this situation.

See what Neo-Neocon has to say, and read my 2004 post Noose, Bomb, and Rocket. Pamela also writes frequently about the situation in Iran.

UPDATE: Read what Victor Davis Hanson has to say.

8:21 PM

Tuesday, January 10, 2006  

Blogging will be intermittant for at least the next several days.

8:00 PM

Tuesday, January 03, 2006  

1) The Palestinian suicide bomber who blew himself up at a checkpoint last Thursday had been planning, had he not been intercepted by the Israeli military, to blow himself up at a Hannukah party for children.

2)The annual conference of the "Palestinian Solidarity Movement" is scheduled to be held at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, on Feb 17-19. The conference is called the "Fifth Annual Divestment Conference," where the term "divestment" clearly refers to divestment from Israel. Read about this organization, and about the complicity of American universities in this kind of thing, here.

3)Um Nidal, a Palestinian woman who is the mother of three suicide bombers, was referred to by the Associated Press as "mother of three Palestinian martyrs." AP story here; also here.

6:53 AM

Monday, January 02, 2006  

The holiday season seems to be causing some people to break into song. Dr Sanity offers this, sung to the tune of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

And, not to be outdone, Mark Steyn has a song for the people of Graz, Austria in commemoration of that city's recent dispute with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's here, and is sung to the turn of My Favorite Things. (Lyrics at the bottom of the post.)

10:29 AM

Sunday, January 01, 2006  

Imagine a machine of the future that moves goods by the ton--by the tens of thousands of tons--along specialized transporation corridors. Guided by computers, tracked by GPS and driven by powerful new engines, this revolutionary, high-tech vehicle slashes America's energy consumption and leaves the air cleaner than any mechanized transport before it. At a time when highways are clogged and fuel reserves are strained, it represents a miracle technology that arries not a moment too soon. It's been under development for more than 200 years, yet it is the transportation of the future. Meet the freight train, reborn.

The above from an article in Popular Mechanics (1/06) on advances in freight railroading technology.

Actually, the railroad renaissance has been going on for some time now, beginning with the deregulation of transportation in 1980. One major factor in the revitalization has been the growth of international trade: container ships are unloaded onto trains, which carry the goods to a point relatively near their destination, at which point the containers are offloaded onto trucks. Another factor has been the willinness of the railroads to invest in information technology: long before the commercialization of the Internet, railroads were using electronic messaging to exchange data among themselves and with their customers. And, very importantly, rails are far more fuel-efficient than trucking: the ratio is usually estimated at between 3:1 and 4:1.

The PM article identifies several innovations now being pursued in the freight railroading industry:

1)More efficient locomotives. As with automobiles, hybrid technology has the potential to reduce fuel consumption. But locomotives have an advantage over cars in hybridization, because they are already electric--the diesel engines generate electricity, which drives the wheels through electric motors. And the motors work in reverse, as generators, to assist braking. What hybridization will do is to add large battery arrays so that the braking energy can be stored for later use, rather than dissipated as heat.

General Electric, which builds locomatives in Erie, PA, is now working on a hybrid design, which will include a battery array storing 1500 kilowatt-hours (enough to run 50 American households for a day.) GE estimates that the hybrid will cut fuel consumption (and emission) by 15%, relative to its newest conventional locomotive, the Evolution series. (I would expect that the actual results would be heavily dependent on the profile of the route on which the equipment is used, with mountainous districts having a particulary good payoff.)

2)Improved signaling and control. If train locations can be tracked more precisely and if signal indications can be relayed to the train continuously, rather than at fixed trackside signal points, then the same physical track will be able to safely handle more traffic. Global Postitioning System (GPS) represents an obvious approach; however, GPS signals are blocked by tunnels and will have to be supplemented in such locations. Software to assist train dispatchers in optimizing the traffic flow is already in use at some railroads, and much additional software work will be needed to take advantage of the emerging train location and control technologies.

3)Better brakes. The air brake, invented by George Westinghouse, has served railroading very well, and saved countless lives. A simple lever movement by the engineer can set or release brakes on every car in the train. But today's air brakes have some deficiencies. It takes a significant amount of time for a brake application to propagate from the locomotive to the cars at the end of the train (many trains today are over a mile long), and this contributes to long stopping distances. With electropneumatic brakes, the power source for the brakes will still be compressed air, but the command to apply the brakes will be delivered electrically, reducing the lag times. The PM article claims that the reduction in stopping times can be up to 70% in some cases. The result will be better safety and, again, better traffic-handling capability on the same physical lines.

There are 1.5 million railcars in North America, and they are routinely transferred from railroad to railroad, so the problems of interoperability in adopting a new braking technology are very great.

4)Remote Operations. Canadian National is already using radio-controlled switching locomotives for yard operations, but the practice remains controversial in the U.S. With CN's approach, a belt-pack remote control system is used by yard employees to operate an unmanned switch engine. There is obviously a labor savings--no engineer is required. Advocates also claim a safety advantage, since yard workers control the locomotive directly, rather than having coordinate to with an engineer, and can point to CN statistics showing a significant drop in accidents since remote control was implemented. (Info on remote control at CN here. ) American railroads are moving more cautiously with the implementation of remote control, and many workers remain concerned about safety. (Good article about remote control at the Union Pacific, here.)

(The PM article speculates about unmanned operation of long-haul trains as well, but I think this is unlikely anytime in the foreseeable future, and would probably not have that much economic impact, anyhow, given the tremendous labor productivity that already exists for long freight hauls.)

I do think there's one factor that will tend to limit railroad growth. Trends in manufacturing and supply-chain management have been strongly toward the just-in-time approach, which tends to imply deliveries which are frequent, relatively small, and highly predictable--and hence, better suited to truck than to train. Computer-assisted scheduling will allow railroads to level the playing field on time and predictability to some extent, but if you want single truckload lots of auto parts delivered twice daily to your factory's receiving dock, at 10:00AM and 3:00PM, you are still going to be better off with truck than with rail. The balancing act between transportation costs and manufacturing and inventory efficiencies is a very complex one, and it may be that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction...the optimum point, of course, will be significantly influenced by fuel costs as reflected in transportation prices.

Even with the above caveat about just-in-time, I think it's pretty clear that U.S. freight railroading has a considerable amount of growth ahead.

Disclosure: I'm a shareholder in several railroads. As always, nothing on this weblog should be considered as investment advice.

Related posts: George Westinghouse as a leader
A PhD in English takes a job with a railroad

12:00 PM


Thanks for reading Photon Courier.

8:29 AM

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